Early Haunts: an interview with T.W. Burgess
Four early and inspirational ghost stories, mostly forgotten in the depths of literary history, are brought together for the first time in one graphic novel adaptation. These stories include:
The Death Bride – An Italian Gothic Horror and a primary literary influence to Mary Shelley, writer of FRANKENSTEIN.
The Wild Huntsman – A German poem which acted as a major inspiration to Washington Irving, writer of SLEEPY HOLLOW.
The Tale from Dish Mansion – a Japanese ghost tale which inspired Sadako in Koji Suzuki’s THE RING
The House in Athens – The first appearance of a ‘chained apparition’, an inspiration to Charles Dickens for Marley’s Ghost from A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
T.W. Burgess is a writer based in Canterbury, Kent. Specialising in horror, ghost stories and folklore. Burgess’s work has been featured in publications such as Rue Morgue, Starburst Magazine and the Fortean Times. He is also the winner of Rue Morgue’s best limited comic series graphic novel award. He currently resides in a 16th century house haunted by an eternally hungry black cat.
What inspired you to unearth the forgotten tales featured in Early Haunts?
So, I’ve been fascinated by ghost stories ever since I was small. From gorging M.R. James’s TV adaptations to spending hours in bookshops looking for books with supernatural photos. In particular I’d always been fascinated with the first haunted house story The House in Athens and the influence that ghost had over so many of our archetypal spectres in film, books and TV. From just some initial research I’d been amazed at how far reaching these influences were and it made me want to delve deeper with some of my other favourite supernatural tales. The four tales in the book vary widely both in location and length. For that reason alone it seemed an interesting concept to bring them together and reveal how they came to be.
What challenges did you face in adapting these stories to a graphic medium?
Each of these ghost stories have come from very unwieldy texts – from pre-1700s Japanese to ancient Greek – so it was a real challenge to correctly translate and ensure that the stories matched up to the original source material.
I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to work with some incredible translators. Anne Doering who helpe translate The Wild Huntsman did a great job at dissecting the story, uncovering old German words and the colour schemes used for the characters. Elements like that were left out of Walter Scott’s adaptation of Gottfried August Bürger’s original poem of The Wild Huntsman and I felt it was important to bring them back.
Also, it was important to break down these stories into a legible format. The Death Bride is the longest of the tales but still a fraction of the huge original story. That narrative is almost ‘Inception-like’ with a ‘tale within a tale’ setting which can be quite confusing to read. It was important to keep it as simple as possible so the reader could keep a handle on what was going on.
Tell us about the book’s artists and what their vision brought to each story.
The artists I’ve worked with have all done an incredible job at visualising these stories and creating a specific atmosphere and tone relevant to each location. Mike O’Brien is an amazing talent whose work has been featured in exhibitions and magazines and his style has really added a raw, creepy feel to Pliny’s tale.
Readers might well know Brian Coldrick from his astounding work in his Behind You animated gifs and book out on IDW. We’ve worked together previously and his detailed style was absolutely spot on for The Wild Huntsman. There’s a depth and autumnal tone to his piece which gives it a real sense of the uncanny.
David Romero I’ve also worked with previously on my Ghoster project. As an artist who specialises in horror he has a great eye for unsettling imagery. But he’s really held back with the Death Bride, allowing the horror to slowly grow within some truly beautiful panel work. Which makes those reveals all the more impactful.
Lastly, Bri Neumann is an artist who I’ve long admired and I was lucky enough to work with her with my book Nyctophobias. Her style has a real manga feel to it and it absolutely perfectly fitted The Tale of Dish Mansion, alongside that of colourist Bryan Valenza, whose tones and colour palette perfectly set the tone to the piece.
Were there any other influential tales you considered for this collection?
Absolutely, there’s definitely potential for an Early Haunts 2 or even possibly further. I don’t want to reveal any in particular but there’s a host of tales from England, Europe and even further afield which have helped pave the way for our modern horror.
What draws you to telling tales of the eerie and horrific?
I’m a keen advocate of M.R. James’s line that the true aim of a ghost story is to inspire “a pleasing terror in the reader”. I truly believe that’s the case. Pure schlock horror where gore and blood is thrown around without rhyme or reason never interests me. I think a good ghost story where the scares are skilfully built and the terror really hits, truly allow us to explore what pushes our buttons and what sends chills up our spines, taking us back to some of our most primal and earliest fears. We can allow ourselves to be scared but with the distance of a page between us and the horror, leaving us with a renewed sense of safety and comfort. Equally, I think stories such as that are especially important right now where these scares are so fantastical and removed from the daily horrors we’re all enduring.
What frightened you as a child?
I remember being equally terrified and fascinated by classic supposed ‘ghost photographs’ in a range of books as a child. All the stereotypical ones which now seem so iconic such as the boy with the glowing eyes in the Amityville house or the Spectre of Newby Church with it’s tattered cloth face. I’d spend hours poring over them and supernatural programs which had chilling clips of ‘supposed’ encounters with ghosts. They always fascinated but haunted my sleep.
But undoubtedly Mr Pipes in Ghostwatch utterly traumatised me. The directing by Lesley Manning was completely before its time and you can see how that directing style later inspired supernatural films such as Blair Witch. I remember not being able to sleep for weeks afterwards.
Can you remember the first horror film you watched?
I’m pretty sure Jaws must have been one of the earliest I watched, probably down to me hounding my Dad to rent it from the video shop. I remember being surprised the shark wasn’t as big as the one on the cover, but it left me with such a feeling of dread (especially the Kinter attack).
That whole premise of showing very little and then building up to a scare is something I’ve always tried to emulate in all my graphic novels ever since. I think it’s a good rule of thumb for horror. If you’ve got a good horror character then allow the tension to build before showing everything.
Have you ever seen a ghost or experienced any other kind of supernatural phenomenon?
Nothing very exciting. The only incident that’s remotely ghostly was when I used to work for a nightclub as head of design and print. I later found out the nightclub had been built on the site of a large medieval church. There was always building work going on and I remember they’d knocked through the flats upstairs to allow it to be turned into a cocktail bar.
One evening I’d stayed late to print off posters for upcoming events and whilst I was doing some designing the handle of the interconnecting door between my office and the old flat clearly shook as if someone was trying it. I’d waited a moment expecting a builder to come in or knock as it was often locked. But when no one did I got up to have a look. Low and behold there was just a dark empty flat beyond the door, and a very empty flat. I walked round the building but there was no one else there. Evidently I got my stuff and left sharpish.
There were loads of rumours about the place but I’m told there was an old part of a crypt somewhere underneath the dancefloor.
Will you share with us one of your most interesting nightmares?
I had one last year actually after watching Inside No.9 which really stayed with me. I’d been watching a load of weird, retro kids TV on youtube – especially ‘Jigsaw’ with ‘Mr Noseybonk’ an absolute horror from my childhood I’ve long been fascinated by. I had an insane dream about an episode of Inside No.9 in which a character watches episodes of Jigsaw and somehow starts transforming into a ‘Bonk’ and being lured to the sewers where a cult of other viewers have transformed into hideous pale faced ‘Bonks’. It was pretty horrific. Tweeted the whole thing – I’m glad it doesn’t exist.
What would you say are your most influential books, comics, and films?
For me graphic novels and comics such as Alan Moore’s From Hell and James O’Barr’s The Crow really show how effective horror can be within the comic medium. I’m a huge fan especially of Horror manga artist and writer Junji Ito and his seminal books Uzumaki and Gyo remain for me some of the most terrifying work to date. Also I love supernatural folklore within graphic novels such as Becky Cloonan’s By chance or Providence and Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods both of which do a wonderful job at crafting an unsettling read matched with gorgeous artwork.
In terms of novels I love the work of Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy, which for me are at the forefront of my favourite books. His world building and lore is unparalleled. For traditional ghost stories I adore Sheridan Le Fanu and E F Benson but above everyone else it has to be M.R. James. His ghost stories have an unidentifiable element of pure malevolence wrapped up in truly believable supernatural lore and academia which set them apart. He was born just a few villages away from where I live and with local landmarks such as Rochester Cathedral appearing in his work I always felt a special resonance with his stories.
For films, I love the work of Guillermo Del Toro, in particular Pan’s Labrynth and The Devils Backbone, there’s always such a high level of detail in his work. But for supernatural horror it’s so hard to pinpoint it to just a few. I love Japanese horror films such as Ring and The Grudge but closer to home it has to be the original Woman in Black and the Christmas adaptations of M.R. James, in particular A Warning to the Curious. It’s utter nightmare fuel.
Much of your writing is rooted in obscure history and folklore – why do you think it is that we are seeing such a resurgence of interest in these areas?
I think in an era of digital platforms where so many people seem to live their lives online, people are looking for respite. Folklore often offers a comfort and a move back to ancient traditions which arguably come with a sense of comfort and community. It’s also something that worldwide we can share with each other, with folklore weaving its way through every culture, often with so many similarities between stories. I think to modern audiences they offer a welcome insight into how our ancestors may have lived their lives and offer a fascinating taste of what came before us.
To what extent does a sense of place affect your writing?
A huge amount. I think it’s really important as a writer to get out and experience as many locations as possible. Admittedly, this year has been harder than usual for that, given the current situation with Covid. But I find usually just getting out to a different location can really aid inspiration.
We’re lucky in the UK as there’s layers upon layers of history around us and the ground is saturated in folklore and tradition (usually a bloody one). For me it might just be visiting a town for the first time and hearing word of a local ghost story or tradition which can start off a whole new ghost story concept.
Tell us about your Ghoster world…
Ghoster is a huge project that’s long been in development. The story follows five families who have defended the UK from Malevolents (evil ghosts) since Elizabethan times through the use of dark alchemy loosely inspired by the tale of Lord Lyttleton and Berkeley Square. I’d been working on Ghoster on and off for years until releasing Malevolents, which acts as a prequel to the first book. Myself and filmmaker Toby Meakins have both been working on the project for several years now, initially releasing a proof of concept short back in 2016 and then last Halloween we released an entire graphic novel for free online.
Since then, Ghoster has picked up a huge amount of attention and we’re currently in the process of working on the follow up story with an incredibly talented artist. There’s a phenomenal amount of work we’ve put into the project (for instance we’ve a 100 page history book of how the factions have evolved, going all the way back to the Iron Age!).
It’s a huge world and we’re really looking forward to telling the next story. I can reveal though we’ll have something Ghoster related coming out just in time for Christmas.
The first book can still be purchased
online at Amazon or downloaded for free on Kindle direct